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The Battle Of the Bulger

Senate president William Bulger likes to think of himself as a modern-day James Michael Curley, an old-style eloquent Irish pol who stands up for his people. But in today's anti-incumbent climate, that image may not sell the way it used to. In 1

By Seth A. Gitell

THE EERY-BRIGHT LIGHT of the early November moon shines through the railing of a Windsor St. rooftop in South Boston. Down the street to the right, the water in Dorchester Bay lies painfully still, lit by the moon rays. To the right, a row of three-story houses stretches all the way up hill. On almost everyone of them hangs a red sign bearing the words "Leadership, Senator Bulger."

Welcome to politics, South Boston style.

Across town earlier in the day, shoppers and tourists stroll along Newbury St. Some carry shopping bags from expensive boutiques; others chatter in colorful dialects of French and Italian. A blonde woman wearing sunglasses gossips with a man clad in a dark black blazer with slicked back, jet-black hair. Both of them live in Back Bay, but are registered to vote back home--in New York City, of course. Politics Back Bay style.

Both these areas, South Boston and the Back Bay, lie in the 1st Suffolk District, along with the South End and parts of Roxbury and Dorchester. This diverse district is the scene of an unlikely battle, between eight-term incumbent Senate President William Bulger (D-South Boston) and upstart Republican challenger John DeJong, a Back Bay veterinarian.

Bulger has been in office a long time, almost 30 years in the state legislature, and to many observers he bears a more than passing resemblance to the ultra-literate Irish pol Frank Skeffington in Edwin O'Connor's novel The Last Hurrah.

Bulger fancies himself a Classical scholar, a modern day Demosthenes who--like the fictional Skeffington--reads poetry and quotes it liberally in his daily speech.

But unlike O'Connor's character, Bulger doesn't seem to think he's ready for his last hurrah.

In fact, the Senate president sees a bright political future for himself, with the good possibility that his candidate of choice, John R. Silber, will be elected the Bay State's governor.

OVER IN BACK BAY, on the corner of Beacon Street and Mass. Ave., DeJong has other ideas. DeJong's campaign headquarters is easy to spot. Large DeJong--Beat Bulger share the window space with recent newspaper endorsements from the Boston Herald and the Boston Globe.

Inside, a group of campaign workers bustle with activity, as a small white poodle, leashed to a metal bridge table, barks at skateboarders whizzing by the open front door. DeJong, in pleated pants and a blue and white striped shirt, is in the corner of the room giving a stump speech for a local media outlet.

"I'm a veterinarian first, and a candidate, a politician second," he says to the phone interviewer. As he talks, DeJong's dog, a black half golden retriever, half labrador, cautiously approaches wearing a "Beat Bulger" collar around his neck.

"This campaign is about good government," says DeJong. "I think Billy Bulger represents bad government. He does not allow television cameras in the chambers of the state Senate. He will not debate me, and will not even shake my hand. He is arrogant and narrow minded, not someone who respects democracy."

DeJong's hopes rest upon the nationwide anti-incumbent fervor that has already tossed a number of the state's old guard politicians out on their ears this fall. Chief among the villains he singles out for attack are outgoing Gov. Michael S. Dukakis, House Speaker George Keverian and Bulger.

But to DeJong, and Republicans across the Bay State, Bulger is the one pegged as the most autocratic, the most arrogant and the most corrupt. His critics charge that during his years as Senate President, Bulger has climbed to the top of a vast system of patronge and favors, ultimately becoming the most powerful politician in the state.

Bulger is quick to deny these charges, oftenargung that the Senate president's power over hiscolleagues is vastly overrated. And his manysupporters in the state political establishmentare fond of remarking that without Bulger, theentire system might fall apart.

REPUBLICAN STRATEGISTS, however, believethat this year, Bulger is vulnerable. And DeJongsays he can win. He argues that Bulger onlyrepresents a small segment of the district, thosetied to him in South Boston, and that members ofother neighborhoods in the district can rallytogether and defeat the incumbent.

According to last September's primary electionresults, Bulger won by a 4000 vote margin. But atleast 7000 citizens cast votes for Bulger'sopponent--a political unknown--and another 4000left their ballots blank, leaving Bulger with only50 percent of the primary vote. Add inIndependents, Republicans and assorted undecidedsand one has a recipe for Bulger's defeat, DeJongsays.

DeJong, who attended Tufts University and TuftsSchool of Veterinary Medicine, says he also hopesto pick up support from a pro-choice liberalcontingent disaffected by Bulger's conservativestance on social issues.

On the surface, Bulger doesn't have muchto fear. The Boston Globe estimates that hiscampaign coffers contain roughly $500,000, whileDeJong says that he has only been able to raise$10,000 since last spring.

But other signs ought to be making the Senatepresident uneasy. One saying on the mouths ofresidents in the District goes "Out with the old,in with DeJong"--the name is pronounced De-Young.And two weeks ago, more than 2000 people gatheredat a "Beat Bulger" rally on the steps of the StateHouse.

These signals have Bulger worried, manyobservers say. For the first time, Bulger isleaving his home turf in South Boston andventuring into other parts of the district to gethis name known. Voters report being deluged withpro-Bulger mail, and seeing his name, and face,everywhere--even in the local weeklies.

But within the peninsula that is South Boston,appearances speak to a Bulger victory. In an urbanenclave still dominated by Irish-Americans, Bulgeris regarded as a powerful protector of rights toooften forgotten by other politicians. Forinstance, Boston Mayor Raymond L. Flynn, a SouthBoston resident and Bulger backer is often seen asa traitor by the community.

"Every other car has a Bulger sticker. Everyother house has a Bulger sign," says one residentof a nearby housing project.

"Billy's family," says Tom, a white-haired manwith glasses, spooning Boston Baked Beans into hismouth at Amrheins Restaurant on Broadway St.

Amrheins is known as a moderately-pricedgathering place for families and friends in thelocal area. With its dark wooden bar, bright brassrailings, and strong lighting, the place servesthose Southie residents who are doing well. Onesign near the bar reads "Parking for Irish Only:All others will be towed" in green lettering, andin the center of the mirror near the bar is agiant framed photo of the New Kids on the Block.

"I think Billy's going to win easy, for all theright reasons," says Tom, who works for thebricklayers union. "He's an effectiverepresentative for the constituents he represents.He has a sense of politics. He has the leadershipabilities. Sure, that's why he's been there solong."

Tom takes a moment to comment on politics,South Boston style. "Tip O'Neill said `allpolitics is local.' It's no more local than it ishere. It's pure neighborhood politics here."

Tom compares Bulger to another Bostonpolitician, former Mayor James Michael Curley--theman who served as the model for The LastHurrah. "They're both scholars," he says.Bulger himself has compared his style of politicsto Curley--a man who portrayed himself as a friendof the people vilified by elitists and the press.

ON THE OTHER SIDE of the SoutheastExpressway--on Newbury St.--people have a slightlydifferent view of Bulger and his benevolence.

"I despise Billy Bulger. He has done nothingfor his constituents. I'm gay, and he's one of ourworst enemies," says Michael Reney, 25, of theSouth End. Clad in khaki shorts, a white T-shirtand a black baseball cap, Reney says "he's gotsuch a major clamp over South Boston it's scary."

"He's a corrupted bastard," says a blond manwith tortoise glasses and a French accent.

"Bulger's been around so long, he's got all hiscronies around him. I don't think he can relate tothe people," says Michael Abbott, 29, of the SouthEnd.

And Michael Walsh, 28, also of the South End,simply makes the thumbs down sign when he hearsBulger's name. Then he intones: "Too corrupt. Toomean. Too much. Too much. Too much. Time for achange."

DeJong acknowleges that he is facing a toughuphill battle. "He has the most powerful politicalmachine in the state," DeJong says. And laborunions, for the most part, are giving theirsupport to Bulger. And, of course, there are thepeople of South Boston.

A DeJong victory, if it comes, will be tough.At Bulgers spacious campaign headquarters on EastEighth Street, South Boston, volunteers, many ofthem union members, make canvass phone calls longinto the night. And even on Newbury St., manypeople's faces take on a blank look when the nameDeJong--or Bulger, for that matter--is mentionedto them. One man asked about Bulger replied,"didn't he play the scarecrow in `The Wizard ofOz?'"

DeJong, however, believes that many of thepeople who are outwardly supporting Bulger, whohave Bulger bumper stickers and Bulger signs, willcome out and vote for him. "They're decenthardworking people. They deserve a better statesenator than Billy Bulger," DeJong says.. Right: Senate President William Bulger'sdays of pomp and glory may be drawing to aclose.

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